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Penn State students draw attention to safety issues at North Atherton/Park Avenue intersection

Penn State student Wareesha Tariq hands a flyer to Penn State professor Eileen Favian, who bikes to campus from College Heights daily, during an event to raise awareness on traffic safety on Wednesday.
Penn State student Wareesha Tariq hands a flyer to Penn State professor Eileen Favian, who bikes to campus from College Heights daily, during an event to raise awareness on traffic safety on Wednesday. CDT photo

A group of Penn State students took to the streets Wednesday for a project that hopes to change a borough intersection’s grim past into a safer future.

Working through the university’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative, public relations majors delivered surveys to pedestrians and cyclists crossing through the intersection of North Atherton Street and Park Avenue. The notorious intersection has been the site of three traffic fatalities since 2014, the most recent nearby taking the life of a Penn State student in September.

“We’re looking to make an impact and a change in the culture of pedestrian and vehicle safety on campus and the surrounding communities,” said Penn State senior and public relations major Erica Avalone.

While crossing the street illegally is common, she said, it’s become a problem both on campus and in the borough. And with the number of fatalities at the intersection, it remains a relevant topic.

“Right now all we know is it’s a problem, but no one really knows what to do with the intersection,” she said. “We hope the data we get from the survey will help.”

The survey, which can be found online at https://sites.psu.edu/surviveatherton/, asks 10 simple questions about pedestrian and cyclists’ habits and knowledge of Pennsylvania’s pedestrian laws. The survey also seeks knowledge of pedestrian movement — where they are coming from, what their destination is — and if they are aware of the intersection’s deadly history.

The survey is part of a capstone campaign project for the students, communications professor Tara Wyckoff said. When the class learned the Sustainable Communities Collaborative already has an initiative to ensure public safety and disseminate information on the topic, a partnership was formed.

The project will culminate in a presentation to the collaborative at the end of the semester, she said. But campaign doesn’t end there.

“After we present this as a class project, we’ve been asked by the police chief to make sure that this is a sustainable project (the borough) could implement,” she said. “So they have great interest in making this a reality.”

State College Police Chief Tom King was on scene as well, saying he was pleased to see the students helping to raise awareness of the problems at the intersection.

King outlined some of the safety precautions taken at the intersection already, including cameras that allow 24/7 monitoring so the borough can see the intersection during its busiest times. Right turns from North Atherton to Park on a red light have also been restricted completely — previously, right turns on red were only restricted between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Dotted double yellow lines also now extend beyond the intersection of Park Avenue, curving to the left to meet the southbound lanes of North Atherton. The borough had discovered some cars making the left turn into town were crossing into the oncoming northbound lanes, King said. These new “tracer lines” had cut those violations “almost 95 percent overnight.”

King said he was looking forward to seeing the campaign presented to the borough.

“You see many of these marketing campaigns in different communities that become well-known and well-understood,” he said. “I think we can create some awareness around this.”

Sustainable Communities Collaborative Director Michele Halsell said the collaborative has been working with the borough for many years on projects from energy to recycling to stormwater mitigation. Two engineering classes are working with the public relations class on the project as well, she said, and suggestions from the public will be analyzed for feasibility and cost.

The project will be presented to the collaborative on Dec. 3, she said, and she invited all residents to learn the results of the campaign.

As a College Heights resident, Halsell said she was no stranger to the dangers of the North Atherton/Park intersection.

“I come through this intersection almost every single day,” she said. “And almost every day I see near misses or have been involved in near misses.”

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